Mental Equipment Syndicated Column – Dec 1,1996 – Dr. John F. Murray – Last month we examined the harmful emotion of fear in tennis and offered suggestions to eliminate choking (See November 1996 Article). An equally dangerous mental state often arises in the absence of fear, when the player is in total command of the match and on the verge of victory.

The Illusion

Many competitors fail to realize that being close to an easy victory is actually one of the most vulnerable situations in the game. There is little additional perceived gain by winning (meets expectations), whereas losing can appear quite traumatic (far below expectations). Even slight self-satisfaction on the part of the leader combined with the gritty determination of a wounded opponent can change the match dramatically. If negative thoughts and fears of choking also intrude, expect a major turnaround.

The Agony

Players at all levels have experienced the agony and frustration of failing to put the match away. Who can forget Todd Martin’s Wimbledon vanishing act after being up 5-1 in the final set against Mal Washington? Applaud Washington’s comeback, but Todd must have been scratching his head for weeks!

The Solution

With a big lead, it is important to know how to win. The mental skills needed to close out a match need to be understood, practiced and refined over and over. With these skills firmly in place, the player will have developed the killer instinct!
Here are a few tips to help you develop the killer instinct:

Never become comfortable with a lead. There are no guarantees for victory. Games are often won and lost in streaks, so you must always be wary of your opponent’s ability to rally.

When you have a commanding lead, play mental games with yourself to avoid a letdown. Pretend that you are really several games behind and need a complete effort to even remain in the match.

Decreased arousal is often associated with a letdown. If you find your energy level slipping or begin to lose interest in the match, fire yourself back up to an optimal arousal level (See September 1995 Article on Arousal).

Overconfidence is another major trap leading to reduced effort and performance (See January 1996 Article on Confidence). Find the right mixture of poise and modesty.

Avoid thinking about or discussing the final score or your next opponent. Stay completely focused on the present and eliminate all other distractions (See November 1995 Article on Attentional Control).

Keep the pressure on the opponent by playing well with a big lead rather than just doing what it takes to win. Your goal should be to convince your opponent that they have absolutely no chance of coming back.

In sum, it takes a precise combination of mental skills and practice to consistently close out matches that should be won. Don’t wait for your opponent’s next dramatic comeback to realize this truth. Invest in Sport Psychology and prosper!